Review of Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This title was billed to me as the thinking person’s zombie novel, released in time for Halloween to match the zeitgeist. Now I usually don’t pick up zombie novels and I’m less than thrilled by zombie games (though Left for Dead is a superb game) but I think that billing Zone One as a zombie novel is a bit of misdirection. I know that literary works generally don’t enjoy the sales of genre novels, so from a marketing point of view I can see why its being lumped with said undead novels.

But the zombies play a background part, and I would argue that New York is a bigger character than most in the novel. In brief, we follow Mark Spitz, a member of a sweeper team whose job it is to kill off the remainder of skels (zombies) and stragglers (zombies who just repeat the same action over and over until they get shot) that the marines left behind after the initial wipeout. Amongst their sweeps through battered, post-apocalyptic New York, they struggle with PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome) and what it means to rebuild their lives amongst a hopelessly destroyed world trying to reassert itself with mantras and desperate hope. This is where it starts to get deliciously literary and less cheap paperback thrills. New York looms always in the landscape, and the novel is an exploration of our lives as we know it, including the subways and human relations and how people might react when most of the world turns into monsters.

This is not like most novels, with a clear path of action and a conclusive happy ending. This is a languid stroll through psyche and city, lifting the rocks where fears and dreams live and how people ultimately strive for some kind of hope. The camps where triplets are born and crops are being raised are the best, grandest hopes that the survivors have. It is a sharp-eyed view of America in the style of Chuck Paulahnuik but less visercal, perhaps. Whitehead is definitely a literary voice with huge accessibility. The descriptions of life before Last Night (when the world turned) make for superb social commentary without it being obvious. The survivor’s mind is explored in depth, encouraging the reader to ask what they would do when in a house surrounded by hundreds of zombies shuffling around it for days and days.

Overall, Zone One is that kind of novel that feels like a hot bath in winter. Wonderful to immerse in, and with no other reason than because its a fine way to pass the time. There’s no heart-pounding action or sweeping romance (or any of those tired adjectival phrases that so litter book blurbs) but nonetheless it was a rewarding and thought-provoking read.

Read more about Colson Whitehead and this novel here at The Atlantic

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